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President Bush Nominates Mukasey for Attorney General

September 17, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: In nominating retired federal Judge Michael Mukasey as attorney general, President Bush made clear he’s seeking quick confirmation of someone to replace the embattled Alberto Gonzales.

MICHAEL MUKASEY, U.S. Attorney General-Designate: I am, of course, deeply honored to be selected as the nominee for attorney general of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: New York Democrat Chuck Schumer today called Mukasey a consensus choice.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: The nomination of Judge Mukasey certainly shows a new attitude in the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: I think President Bush has made a very conscious and deliberate effort to choose someone who would not be controversial.

MARGARET WARNER: The choice is a setback for conservatives who backed former Solicitor General Ted Olson for the job. The White House floated his name, but last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shot it down, saying Olson was too partisan.

The 66-year-old Mukasey was born in New York City and received his law degree from Yale. He served as assistant U.S. attorney in New York City in the 1970s, where he developed a lasting friendship with another assistant prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani.

In 1987, President Reagan named Mukasey to the federal bench. He later became chief judge. In the mid ’90s, he presided over the trial of the “blind sheik,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, and others accused of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks.

In a 2002 terrorism case, Mukasey upheld the Bush administration’s designation of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant, but ruled he must be allowed to meet with his attorneys.

Today, Mukasey spoke of the challenges the Justice Department faces in a post-9/11 world.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: Thirty-five years ago, our foreign adversaries saw widespread devastation as a deterrent; today, our fanatical enemies see it as a divine fulfillment. The Justice Department must also protect the safety of our children, the commerce that assures our prosperity, and the rights and liberties that define us as a nation.

Mukasey's career as a judge

Daniel Richman
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney
He is a no-nonsense, straight-shooting, extraordinary jurist. He is smart and, I think more importantly, can keep a case or a large bureaucracy going along the right tracks.

MARGARET WARNER: Mukasey will be meeting with lawmakers this week in advance of his confirmation hearings.

For more on Michael Mukasey and what kind of attorney general he might be, we're joined by two lawyers who have argued before him in court. Mary Jo White was U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York from 1993 to 2002. She's now in private practice in New York City. And Daniel Richman was an assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district from 1987 to '92. He's now a professor at Columbia Law School.

And welcome to you both.

Mary Jo White, beginning with you, what should we know about Judge Mukasey as a judge that tells us what kind of attorney general he might be?

MARY JO WHITE, Former U.S. Attorney: Judge Mukasey was, as a judge, you know, always on top of the issues, very insightful, extremely well-prepared, really held the parties, I think, the defense and the prosecution, to very high standards, as well. He's very fair across the boards, very intelligent, independent thinker, just a tremendous judge. And that will carry over as attorney general.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Richman, what was your experience?

DANIEL RICHMAN, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney: He is a no-nonsense, straight-shooting, extraordinary jurist. He is smart and, I think more importantly, can keep a case or a large bureaucracy going along the right tracks. He also has a very quiet, ironic sense of human that comes up at just the right occasion to diffuse any problems.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Mary Jo White, when people have been using the phrase today "consensus nominee," what way is he a consensus nominee?

MARY JO WHITE: I think because he's so strong and his own person. I mean, he's not affiliated, associated with any political agenda one way or the other. He really is a down-the-middle, strong, independent thinker. I think he brings instant credibility and reputation to the Department of Justice because that's who he is. He embodies all those traits. So he should be a consensus choice because of his strength and his down-the-middle qualities.

Mukasey as "consensus choice"

Mary Jo White
Former U.S. Attorney
You certainly get with him someone with deep expertise of the threat we face from al-Qaida, but you also get from him...a very deep respect and knowledge of the Constitution and the rights of individuals.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan Richman, what does the phrase "consensus choice," which was the one that New York Senator Chuck Schumer in particular used, say to you?

DANIEL RICHMAN: I think one of the things that got lost a bit in the U.S. attorney flap was that Congress's purposes and its interests have always been served by strong United States attorneys offices. So I don't think it's surprising that congressmen and senators across the board recognize in Judge Mukasey somebody who really will carry the department's interest in the independence of U.S. attorneys offices forward and reorganize, or at least give the department new credibility in that respect.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Dan Richman, staying with you, one of the harshest criticisms of Alberto Gonzales -- and it came from Republicans as well as Democrats -- was that when he moved from the Office of Local Counsel at the White House to attorney general, critics say he essentially still acted as the president's lawyer rather than as the people's lawyer. How independent do you think Judge Mukasey would be as an attorney general of the White House?

DANIEL RICHMAN: I expect he's somebody who recognizes that, at the end of the day, it's the president and the White House that needs to call the shots in important national security matters. But he's also somebody who has, throughout his life, exercised independent judgment and recognized that professionals have something really important to bring to the table and that the rule of law really will be advanced if their voices are heard.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mary Jo White, he has a long history with terrorism cases, as we outlined in the setup piece. What do his rulings in those cases and the way he handled some of those trials tell us about where he sees the balance between the demands of national security and individual rights, individual liberty?

MARY JO WHITE: Well, I think, as in everything, he first listens to the law and studies the law and then strikes the balance he believes is correct. I mean, you certainly get with him someone with deep expertise of the threat we face from al-Qaida, but you also get from him, you know, a very deep respect and knowledge of the Constitution and the rights of individuals who may be under scrutiny because of the terrorism threat. But you get great experience, great expertise, and very balanced judgment from him.

Mukasey on the Patriot Act

Daniel Richman
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney
Judge Mukasey is well-aware of the limits of the criminal process when dealing with the kinds of threats we're dealing with today.

MARGARET WARNER: And can you tell anything -- he's also written widely. At one point, in fact, he defended, say, the Patriot Act. Can you tell where he would come down on some of the approaches -- some have been somewhat novel -- that this administration has taken in pursuing the fight against terrorism?

MARY JO WHITE: Well, I think he, like a lot of us involved in those terrorism trials of the 1990s through 2001, sees the limitations of civilian criminal law enforcement in the terrorism arena. And Judge Mukasey has spoken out publicly on, we need to study alternative solutions for dealing with the threat we face from terrorism, in addition to the civilian criminal justice system. When he uses and is part of the civilian criminal justice system, nobody does it better than he does, but I think he has learned that it's not a sufficient remedy for what we face today and likely face for our lifetimes.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Richman, much has been made of his ruling in the Padilla case early on in 2002. And what did that say to you about where he draws the line on this balance between national security and individual rights?

DANIEL RICHMAN: To me, it was a very thoughtful opinion that, at least at the time, was said by people to have been the end of his career politically, because he found there to have been a right to counsel for Mr. Padilla. It is true that what he also did was to allow a degree of substantial detention for somebody without a criminal trial. But as Mary Jo just pointed out, I think more than anyone else Judge Mukasey is well-aware of the limits of the criminal process when dealing with the kinds of threats we're dealing with today.

MARGARET WARNER: And how about some of the more controversial measures that Congress has certainly questioned lately, which has to do with, say, the surveillance program? What can you tell us about what his approach might be? I know this is a little speculative, but...

DANIEL RICHMAN: It really is speculative, but I have to say one of the things that's marked his post-judicial speeches and his conversations on the matter is a readiness to confront very hard, complicated constitutional questions in the face of a new kind of threat.

I think it is clear to most people who really will think hard about this that the FISA act needs to be redone. It's clear that a lot of our thinking about how to deal with foreign terrorists abroad needs to be clarified and possibly changed. And, certainly, Judge Mukasey, as a highly thoughtful, independent jurist, will bring just the kind of perspective that we need.

Justice Department morale

Mary Jo White
Former U.S. Attorney
He will be very supportive of the career people in the Department of Justice, interested in what they're doing, and help them get their job done. And I think the department itself will gain new respect from his appointment.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Mary Jo White, the Justice Department, by all accounts, is suffering from terrible morale. Senator Specter today called it "dysfunctional." Does Judge Mukasey have the kind of personality, temperament, leadership qualities that will enable him to restore morale in the department?

MARY JO WHITE: I think absolutely, and I think a large part of it will be done instantaneously, just by virtue of who he is and how he approaches problems. He will be very supportive of the career people in the Department of Justice, interested in what they're doing, and help them get their job done. And I think the department itself will gain new respect from his appointment, and that is a morale boost to the troops, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Richman, a brief final word from you on the morale question and his ability to lead the department out of that?

DANIEL RICHMAN: I think it's very easy for people to have talking points about the need to respect the decisions of those in the field, but it's very different for someone like Judge Mukasey to come forward and have been chosen from a very long and distinguished line of assistants in the southern district who can make that commitment.

MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Richman and Mary Jo White, thank you both.

MARY JO WHITE: Thank you.

DANIEL RICHMAN: Thank you.